Isolation affects people differently. But without specific safeguards, stay-at-home mandates can spell danger for victims of household abuse.
“Just because we are physically not seeing people doesn’t mean it’s not happening.” said Jessica Hoggle, a staff therapist for the Women and Gender Resource Center.
In a city council meeting held at the end of April, Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox announced the Tuscaloosa Police Department has seen a 56% increase in domestic violence in the six weeks since COVID-19 protective measures were put in place.
For Belinda Jones, who works with domestic violence survivors, this is an alarming but unsurprising statistic. Domestic violence tends to increase when families spend more time together.
“We have never stopped as far as providing services to our clients,” said Jones, who is the interim executive director for Turning Point in Tuscaloosa. “It certainly has been an increase in calls that have been coming in… more people are home and we’re seeing more domestic violence because of it.”
Turning Point is a dual agency located in Tuscaloosa that deals with both domestic violence and sexual assault. On March 18 Turning Point had two families of women and children in domestic violence shelters. Since then that number has increased to seven families.
The Stay at Home Order was enacted on April 4 by Governor Kay Ivey to help combat the rise of COVID-19 cases in Alabama. The order trailed behind about 40 states, and even some counties in Alabama, which saw a need to exert local powers to keep their communities safe.
The Stay at Home Order was lifted on April 30 and has since been replaced by the Safer at Home Order, which is in effect until May 15, further loosening a relatively relaxed state mandate. But, in debates about state control, the voices of those who would suffer most from mandatory solitude were often ignored.
When announced, the initial Stay at Home Order didn’t provide any specific accommodations for victims of abuse. For state officials, the threat of domestic violence was an afterthought.
“There’s nothing about the Governor’s Stay at Home Order that would require a victim to stay in a situation in which violence is there,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said on April 20, announcing an exception to the mandate a little over two weeks after the initial order was enacted.
The exact language of the order defines essential services as those that “…provide for the health, safety and welfare of the public.” It also states that people may leave to seek shelter if, “… his or her residence is unsafe or at imminent risk of becoming unsafe.” However, this vague language does not define if this is due to violence or a structural problem with the building.
Over the next month-and-a-half, domestic violence cases continued to rise.
Tuscaloosa’s rise is severely high compared to other large cities around the U.S. In March, Houston saw a 20% rise in domestic violence calls; Phoenix, Arizona had a 6% rise, and Charlotte-Mecklenberg, North Carolina, saw an 18% jump in reports.
During the years of 2016-2018, The University of Alabama saw five cases of domestic violence per year. However, there were much higher rates of dating violence: 19 in 2016, 22 in 2017 and 23 in 2018 according to the Office of Postsecondary Education.
John Hopkins University researchers have estimated that there will be a 20% increase in violence worldwide during an average three-month lockdown. Marengo County has experienced four homicides since the stay at home order with three being the result of domestic violence.
So far, no domestic violence related homicides have occurred in Tuscaloosa at this time. Yet, the possibility of such homicides rises with each passing day that social distancing efforts remain in effect. Law enforcement can expect to see a rise in domestic violence reports during holidays and any other occasion in which there is prolonged family exposure. Add the stress caused by the loss of jobs, financial stability and limited travel, and the numbers only give a glimpse of reality, Hoggle said.
“For every person that’s in an abusive situation that we see, there are that many times more people that we don’t see because of the dynamics of abuse, and because of the isolation that’s involved,” Hoggle said.
Hoggle helps people who are victims of interpersonal violence. This would include dating violence, domestic violence, sexual harrasment, sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, stalking and childhood abuse.
“Dating and domestic violence, as we know, can be very pervasive and can affect a lot of different areas of someone’s life,” Hoggle said.
This is why the UA Women Gender and Resource Center (WGRC) offers more services than therapy sessions. They offer academic advocacy for the victims they see, safe housing through the University or through Turning Point, extensive individualized safety planning for victims, and filing for crime victims compensation through the state of Alabama.
They also offer counseling services to faculty and staff, secondary victims and non-students who are victimized on campus.
Though the city is reporting high numbers, the WGRC has not seen an increase in reports in the weeks since the Stay-at-Home order.
“There’s lots of barriers to help seeking [victims] especially when someone is in a violent and dangerous situation,” she said. “It might not be safe for them to seek help, or seek therapy or seek our services which is really unfortunate.”
UNDERSTANDING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Warning signs of domestic and dating violence aren’t always “bruises and black eyes,” Hoggle said.
“A lot of dating and domestic violence comes in the form of covert emotional abuse, including using coercion and threats,” she said.
Among tactics used by perpetrators of domestic violence are intimidating the victim to stay in the relationship and isolating the victim from friends and family – both of which become easier when victims are exposed to their abusers for prolonged times.
Hoggle says these problems, “…all circle back to a perception of power and control by the perpetrator.”
Those seeking to help should be honest with the victim about their concerns and seek primarily to connect those experiencing violence with available services.
“First and foremost it’s really important not to blame victims for what they choose to do and not to do in order to survive,” Hoggle said.
She said that society must eliminate the stigma around therapy, mental health and dating and domestic violence. By doing this we can help break down the barriers that keep people from seeking help.
Lastly we must, “Decrease the messages of blame and shame and reducing that stigma that is associated with seeking help.”
If you or someone you know is being affected by domestic violence during this pandemic below are some places to contact if you are seeking help:
Turning Point Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Services
Hotline #: (205) 758-0808
Business #: (205) 758-0808
University of Alabama Resources:
Women and Gender Resources Center
South Lawn Office Building
Phone #: (205) 348-5040
Domestic Violence Law Clinic (UA Law School)
101 Paul Bryant Drive
Phone #: (205) 348-4960